DVD: “Rumpole of the Bailey” (1978-1992)

“Rumpole of the Bailey” (1978-1992)


Forty-four Episodes

Created by: John Mortimer

Featuring: Leo McKern, Jonathan Coy, Julian Curry, Marion Mathie, Richard Murdoch and Maureen Darbyshire

Horace Rumpole: “An Englishman’s gin bottle is his castle!”

Released this month on DVD is, the now, classic television series “Rumpole of the Bailey” (1978-1992) which sees Horace Rumpole, an elderly London barrister who defends a broad variety of clients, who are all often underdogs, so we see stories from a myriad point of views. Whilst the series can trace its origins back to the 1960s , and some of the plots may seem out of touch or reserved but it can be important to remember when this series was produced so in those terms it is not only extremely entertaining but can help to see where the modern court room drama has served from as well as the A – B plot structure that has become common in modern one hour dramas from the UK and the US not to mention other countries. These are all mostly self contained stories so to does lack the narrative cohesion that some modern dramas have built in.  

Horace Rumpole has a number of constant character trait, first and foremost, he loves the courtroom. Despite attempts by his friends and family to get him to move on to a more respectable position for his age, he only enjoys defending his clients (who are often legal aid cases) at the Old Bailey, London’s Central Criminal Court. His skill at defending his clients is legendary among the criminal classes. The Timson clan of “minor villains” (primarily thieves) regularly rely on Rumpole to get them out of their latest bit of trouble with the law. His courtroom zeal gets him into trouble from time to time. Often, his investigations reveal more than his client wants him to know. Rumpole’s chanciest encounters stem from arguing with judges, particularly those who seem to believe that being on trial implies guilt or that the police are infallible. Despite his affection for the criminal classes, Rumpole has firm ethics. He is a staunch believer in the presumption of innocence, the “Golden Thread of British Justice”. He often reinforces this by proclaiming that it is better for 10 guilty men to go free than for one innocent to be convicted. Rumpole’s credo is “I never plead guilty”, although he has qualified that credo by stating on several occasions that he is morally bound to enter a guilty plea if he knows for a fact that the defendant is guilty of the crime of which he/she is accused. But if he has any doubt whatsoever about the facts surrounding the commission of the crime, even if the defendant has confessed to the deed (having stated, and proved, on one occasion that “there is no piece of evidence more unreliable than a confession!”), Rumpole feels equally honour-bound to enter a plea of “not guilty” and offer the best defence possible. His “never plead guilty” credo also prevents him from making deals that involve pleading guilty to lesser charges. Rumpole also refuses to prosecute, feeling it more important to defend the accused than to work to imprison them. (There was one exception, when Rumpole took on a private prosecution, working for a private citizen rather than for the crown, but he proved that the defendant was innocent and then reaffirmed, “from now on, Rumpole only defends”.)

Created by John Mortimer who is best remembered for creating Rumpole, inspired by his father Clifford, whose speciality is defending those accused of crime in London’s Old Bailey. Mortimer created Rumpole for a BBC Play For Today in 1975. Although not Mortimer’s first choice of actor, Australian born Leo McKern played the character with gusto and proved popular; accordingly, the idea was developed into a series, Rumpole of the Bailey, for Thames Television in which McKern again took the lead role. Mortimer also wrote a series of Rumpole books. In September–October 2003, BBC Radio 4 broadcast four new 45-minute Rumpole plays by Mortimer with Timothy West in the title role.

Rumpole as played by Leo McKern jumps off the screen, in fact like many actors who play characters for long stretches the best always imbue themselves with who they play. There are few actors more associated with a character than Australian born McKern who relished his role, in fact it is difficult to think of many others who would have been able to play the role so singularly.

“Rumpole of the Bailey” is one of the great television drams that has ever been made on British television which is saying something considering when it was produced. It has glimpses of what we would call modern dramatic television while maintaining the tradition it has been. built on. This show is something that should be at least viewed once if not part of any collection. I loved re-watching these shows, they not only brought back memories but reminded me of how good the show was and how great McKern portrayed this magnificent character.


Series One

Rumpole and the Younger Generation: Rumpole is defending a young member of the Timson clan, an extended family of light-fingered but otherwise moral South London villains. To his distress, his own son appears to be acquiring some of the Timson traits.

Rumpole and the Alternative Society: Rumpole defends a hippie-type schoolteacher on a narcotics charge and finds himself attracted to her and her lifestyle.

Rumpole and the Honourable Member: An MP is accused of raping one of his assistants, and seems reluctant to defend himself. Rumpole is left with only one line of defence; attack the complainant’s character, thereby infuriating his son’s American fiancée.

Rumpole and the Married Lady: After a long spell without cases, Rumpole is apparently divorcing his old friend and colleague George Frobisher. His client meanwhile threatens to drive Rumpole’s wife Hilda (She who must be obeyed) into the arms of her friend Dod.

Rumpole and the Learned Friends: Rumpole accuses a dishonest policeman of framing his safecracker client and finds himself in legal trouble when he can’t back up his claim.

Rumpole and the Heavy Brigade: Rumpole returns to bloodstains as he defends an stuttering, apparently mentally-challenged petty crook on a murder charge.

Series Two

Rumpole and the Man of God: Rumpole defends a vicar accused of shoplifting three shirts although he refuses to testify in his own behalf.

Rumpole and the Case of Identity: One instance of marital infidelity is at the root of Rumpole’s current case involving a liquor store robbery while another threatens the stability of his chambers.

Rumpole and the Show Folk: Rumpole goes on Circus, or rather on Circuit, in the north, where an actor and theatre manager has been shot with a stage prop. The case seems clear-cut, but everything depends on how one reads the script.

Rumpole and the Fascist Beast: Captain Rex Parkin of the Pay Corps (retired) is charged with an offence under the Race Relations Act, and finds to his horror that Rumpole has taken under his wing a pupil barrister from the Punjab.

Rumpole and the Course of True Love: What appears to be an uncontrollable outbreak of bed-hopping is about to ruin the chances of Guthrie Featherstone QC MP becoming a judge, and Rumpole’s client’s career as a teacher.

Rumpole and the Age for Retirement: Both Rumpole and his current client, Percy Timson, one of the patriarchs of the criminal clan, are under pressure by their families to retire.

Rumpole’s Return: A bored Rumpole living in Florida retirement uses an inquiry from Phyllida as a pretext to re-establish himself back in chambers.

Series Three

Rumpole and the Genuine Article
: Rumpole defends an eccentric artist in a forgery case before the newly appointed Judge Featherstone.

Rumpole and the Golden Thread: Rumpole agrees to defend a cabinet minister of a former British African colony accused of murdering a prominent clergyman. 

Rumpole and the Old Boy Net: A seemingly respectable old school couple arrested for running a brothel for upper-class clients are reluctant to help in their own defense.

Rumpole and the Female of the Species: Rumpole defends a petty thief on charges of armed robbery while trying to get Fiona accepted into his chamber.

Rumpole and the Sporting Life: Rumpole reluctantly agrees to defend Fiona’s sister, who’s accused of murdering her husband with a shotgun.

Rumpole and the Last Resort: Rumpole tries to collect an old debt from an elusive deadbeat solicitor while defending a vacation planner on fraud charges.

Series Four

Rumpole and the Old, Old, Story: After a fight with his wife Rumpole stays with Erskine-Browns and finds that Portia is prosecuting one of his clients.

Rumpole and the Blind Tasting: Rumpole defends career criminal Hugh Timson for receiving a garageful full of stolen wine.

Rumpole and the Official Secret: Rumpole defends an eccentric spinster accused of being a government whistle-blower.

Rumpole and the Judge’s Elbow: Rumpole defends the smarmy owner of a string of massage parlors on the charge of running “disorderly houses” (i.e. bordellos).

Rumpole and the Bright Seraphim: After an army sergeant is found stabbed to death wearing a woman’s dress, Rumpole is assigned to defend the accused murderer.

Rumpole’s Last Case: While defending one of the Timson clan, Rumpole makes an exotic horse racing bet which may allow him to retire if he wins.

Series Five

Rumpole and the Bubble Reputation: A notorious tabloid hires Rumpole to defend it in a libel suit being brought by a puritanical novelist it has accused of sexual promiscuity.

Rumpole and the Barrow Boy: Nigel Timson, one of the few members of the notorious Timson clan to have a legitimate job, is defended by Rumpole on a charge of insider trading.

Rumpole and the Age of Miracles: Rumpole defends Hilda’s nephew, a canon who has accused of adultery in an ecclesiastical court. 

Rumpole and the Tap End: Featherstone’s controversial remarks and ruling in a domestic violence case causes fallout from women’s rights groups and concern from the Lord Chancellor.

Rumpole and Portia: Rumpole defends a scrap dealer accused of selling arms to terrorists while Phyllida presides at the trial in her newly appointed job as recorder.

Rumpole and the Quality of Life: Rumpole defends Lady Perdita Derwent, charged with the murder of her elderly husband. Meanwhile, Ms Liz Probert complains of anti-gay discrimination at number 3, Equity Court, and the portly Rumpole suffers from a strict diet imposed by She Who Must Be Obeyed.

Series Six

Rumpole a la Carte: Rumpole agrees to defend an elitist restaurateur whom he dislikes when a live mouse jumps out from one of his gourmet meals.

Rumpole and the Summer of Discontent: Rumpole defends a union activist accused of manslaughter while Hilda goes on strike as Rumpole’s cook because of his late hours.

Rumpole and the Right to Silence: A radical college professor accused of murder refuses to disclose his alibi while Ballard and Erskine Brown learn domestic lessons about the right to silence.

Rumpole at Sea: While on a Mediterranean cruise, Rumpole is confronted with his old nemesis, Judge Graves, and the unexplained disappearance of one of his fellow passengers.

Rumpole and the Quacks: Rumpole defends a Pakistani doctor accused of molesting a female patient, and Phyllida suspects Erskine-Brown of philandering.

Rumpole for the Prosecution: Rumpole agrees to prosecute for the first time in a private complaint brought by the rich father of a murdered girl.

Series Seven

Rumpole and the Children of the Devil: A well-meaning social worker takes custody of an eight year-old Timson girl charging that the family is involved with devil worship.

Rumpole and the Miscarriage of Justice: Rumpole finds himself in the unusual position of defending a police officer on a charge of falsifying a confession.

Rumpole and the Eternal Triangle: After becoming enamored of a beautiful violinist, Rumpole finds himself defending her husband on a charge of murdering her lover.

Rumpole and the Reform of Joby Jonson: Rumole defends a juvenile delinquent on charges of assaulting an elderly woman, and Hilda is concerned when a burglar breaks in to steal evidence from his briefcase.

Rumpole and the Family Pride: The suspicious drowning of an anonymous old woman on an estate prompts the Lord to invite his cousins, the Rumpoles, for the weekend, and he asks Horace to represent him at the inquest.

Rumpole on Trial: When Rumpole is charged by Judge Oliphant with contempt of court and faces disbarment, Hilda persuades Sam Ballard to defend him.

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